My very first job out of college was working for Chuck Colson. He had just been released from prison and was starting a prison ministry. I was his first “research assistant/travel companion.” Chuck had been humbled and broken by his experience in prison and vowed when he left never to forget those he left behind. And he did not. Despite job offers that would have paid him seven figures after prison, he turned them all down to start Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Chuck took seriously the admonition of Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.” I traveled with him as we visited state and federal prisons throughout the country. Observing Chuck speak in prison chapels and visiting with inmates on death row was a remarkable experience. Any elitism he had from his patrician upbringing or Nixon White House days was gone. He cared about the inmates, about the conditions they lived in, and about their plight—and they knew it. They were often big, burly, tattooed men of every race and background. Chuck hugged them all.
I saw him do this often—away from the TV cameras and the media—and it was always quite moving.
Many of the obits about Chuck have highlighted that he was Nixon’s “hatchet man” and “dirty-tricks specialist.” Too little has been said about the man who spent the better part of his life, post-Watergate, caring “for the least of these.”
Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Every obituary of Chuck Colson that I read in the first hours after his death began with a phrase like “Watergate felon,” before moving on to Colson’s post-Nixonian accomplishments as the founder of Prison Fellowship. Chuck would have understood; he knew how the game was played. Yet from his present station, I expect that Charles W. Colson is enjoying a last laugh. For his enduring impact on American public life had nothing to do with Watergate—except that Watergate drove him out of “politics,” as conventionally understood, and opened up possibilities for him to have a truly historic effect on America.
Chuck Colson did not invent the evangelical-Catholic alliance that is one of the most potent cultural forces in 21st-century American politics; but he legitimated it for vast numbers of evangelicals who were not altogether sure, 20-some years ago, that Catholics were their brothers and sisters in Christ. In that respect, Colson’s ecumenism—his absolute commitment to the reconciliation in truth of those divided by the Reformation—was his greatest contribution to the future of the country he loved. For if America is to undergo, in Lincoln’s phrase, a “new birth of freedom,” it will be because the evangelical-Catholic co-belligerency in the American Culture War will have effectively proposed, and embodied, one of America’s founding ideas: that freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to goodness and virtue.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.